#BookReview: The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark

Biographic Fiction

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Two young men with expectations. One predicted to succeed, the other to fail. 

Prince Albert Victor is heir presumptive to the British throne at its late Victorian zenith. Handsome and good-hearted, he is regarded as disastrously inadequate to be the king. By contrast, Jem Stephen is a golden boy worshipped by all - a renowned intellectual and the Keeper and outstanding player of the famous Eton Wall Game. He is appointed as Prince Albert’s tutor at Cambridge - the relationship that will change both of their lives.

Set mostly in London and Norfolk from the 1860s to the 1890s, 'The Prince Of Mirrors' is, behind its splendid royal façade, a story about the sense of duty and selflessness of love, that have a power to show someone who they really are. Blending historical facts with plausible imagination, it is a moving portrait of Britain’s lost king, the great-uncle of Queen Elizabeth II.

I picked up Alan Robert Clark’s The Prince of Mirrors as a palate cleanser between Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker and Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith. The novel is a far cry from the heavy political dialogues that characterize my Presidential Reading Challenge and I gave the premise no more than a superficial glance before jumping into the story. This wasn’t a book I expected to get swept up in, but that is exactly what happened.

Rumor and speculation tie Eddy to both the Cleveland Street scandal and the infamous Whitechapel murders, but unlike Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Clark downplays the sensational and crafts a penetrating fictional portrait of a man struggling to come into his own. At its heart, The Prince of Mirrors is a story of identity, the burden of expectation, and the challenges of living by stringent standards of duty, faith, and traditional morality.

Eddy’s journey of self-discovery is prompted in many ways by his tutor, James Kenneth Stephen. I don’t want to give too much away, but I loved how Clark framed this story. Trends in historic fiction don’t lend themselves to male-driven narratives and I adored indulging in social rhythms and perspectives that are so often ignored and disregarded by mainstream publishers.

I was equally enthralled by Clark’s fearless portrayal of bi-polar disorder. When people talk about diversity in historical fiction, the question usually centers on race, but the term is just as applicable to sexuality, gender, age, religion, nationality, and representation of disabilities and disorders. Kate Quinn featured a heroine with a stutter in The Alice Network, Marie Benedict’s lead has a club foot in The Other Einstein, and Karen Harper tackled epilepsy in The Royal Nanny, but such depictions are more exception than norm. I don’t mean to get on a soapbox here, but we need more fiction like this; more stories by authors who are not afraid of tearing down barriers and erasing social stigma through the creativity of their pens and keyboards.

Clark’s characterizations of Princess Hélène of Orléans, Queen Victoria, Edward VII, Alexandra of Denmark, and George V are worth mentioning, as is his command of language and prose. The novel is slow in terms of pacing, but I found it thematically thought-provoking and brilliantly imagined. Highly recommended.

The following does not factor in my review, but I feel it worth noting for readers who are sensitive to particular content: The Prince of Mirrors includes descriptions of same-sex intimacy.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 23, 2018

"If the common people felt this exclusion, they might have been comforted to know how eagerly those trapped in the carriages would have swapped place..."